The 2013 budget that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn proposed Thursday achieves one milestone already: It contains no bad surprises. Property taxes would remain the same, the city would not lay off any employees, and a host of long-delayed road, utility and park projects would sputter to life. It will take years for the city's economy to recover from the recession. But this budget represents optimism from the mayor and a sensible approach for growth.
The budget is largely meat-and-potatoes on the operations side, as the city grapples with a sixth straight year of declining revenue that has seen property tax collections drop more than a third, to $115 million. Buckhorn's predecessor, Pam Iorio, helped by cutting hundreds of positions at City Hall and socking away millions in cash reserves. This budget continues to flatten the bureaucracy, eliminating some vacant jobs. And Buckhorn pared back spending to help plug a $28 million deficit.
Still, this budget is hardly a holding pattern. Buckhorn would spend $15 million in 2013 and nearly $60 million over the next five years on neighborhood projects, from filling potholes to repairing pools, sidewalks and parks. This is even more than Iorio spent under her ambitious neighborhood agenda. And it will help housing values recover more quickly even as it improves the quality of life throughout the city. The administration would follow through on a years-old obligation to dredge some canals in south Tampa and to improve water service and storm water drainage in some of the most flood-prone areas. And the city would complete the Riverwalk through downtown. Buckhorn said repeatedly during last year's mayoral race that even cash-strapped cities cannot cut their way to the top, and this budget builds on that ideal.
Buckhorn's reliance on nearly $9 million in cash reserves and the extenuation of some debt to balance the budget is not a sustainable strategy. But the spending plan makes some critical investments that will make the operation at City Hall more efficient over time, and the withdrawal from reserves does not risk the city's creditworthiness or unduly drain the rainy day funds. Buckhorn has offered a spending plan that balances the need to sustain city services and look toward the future, and he has fairly spread the new capital projects across the city.
Buckhorn has also sent an important message to the private sector that even in this tough environment the city will continue to make Tampa a better place to live and do business. That dose of confidence should inspire the Tampa City Council, which will consider the budget over the next month. This proposed budget may not be a huge step forward, but it's a step forward nonetheless.